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Georgia and Other States Accused of Misreporting Coronavirus Data Used for Reopening Plans

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  • Several states are being slammed for misreporting or misrepresenting the number of coronavirus cases and testing data.
  • The most notable example is Georgia, where some have accused the health department of misrepresenting testing data to support Gov. Kemp’s broad reopening. 
  • The agency has shared a number of misleading and even inaccurate pieces of information on its website. Most recently, it posted a graph that showed a decline in cases, but only because the dates were out of order.
  • Other states that have started reopening, like Texas and Virginia, included antibody tests in their reports, which experts say skewed the data.

Georgia’s Graph Gaff

Several states, including those with some of the broadest and most aggressive plans for reopening, are being criticized for misrepresenting and misreporting their coronavirus testing data.

Already, there are significant discrepancies between how data is reported state to state.

But the reporting of testing data is crucial for both politicians and the public to accurately understand how the pandemic is impacting their state. With that information, they can make informed choices about public health, like whether or not to reopen.

Now, experts are worried that skewed data from poor reporting could lead some states to ease restrictions too fast. Others believe that may be intentional.

Georgia is perhaps the most notable example of a state that has been widely condemned for its practice concerning data reporting.  The state’s Department of Public Health (DPA) has had numerous mishaps in the area, and was most recently accused of sharing a misleading graph.

The graph in question, shared on the DPA’s website just over a week ago, displayed the number of confirmed cases in the five most heavily hit counties over a range of two weeks.

Source: Georgia Department of Public Health

At first glance, the graph appeared to show the number of cases declining steadily. However, after looking to the bottom axis of the graph— the x-axis— it becomes apparent that the dates of each county’s recorded cases are not in order at all.

The graph starts by going from April 28 to April 27, then to April 29. At one point it even jumps from May 7 to April 26, then back to May 3.

What’s more, the colored bars—which represent different counties— were also arranged in different orders on different dates, further contributing to the appearance that the graph was showing declining cases.

However, according to an analysis of that data by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, there was not actually such a strong downward trend. 

“The data is still preliminary, and cases have held steady or dropped slightly in the past two weeks,” the newspaper reported.

The DPA eventually updated the graph, and Gov. Brian Kemp’s office issued an apology.

“The x axis was set up that way to show descending values to more easily demonstrate peak values and counties on those dates,” a spokesperson wrote on Twitter. “Our mission failed. We apologize. It is fixed.”

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The DPA, however, had a different explanation. A spokesperson told the AJC that the issue was due to an error in how it sorted dates. 

Other Errors in Georgia’s Reporting

This was not the first time that Georgia’s health department has made a significant reporting error.

According to the AJC, observers have noted “sloppiness in case counts, death counts and other measures that are fundamental to tracking a disease outbreak.”

The AJC also reported that in recent weeks, issues with the department’s data “caused confusion over whether novel coronavirus deaths had topped 1,000,” and that “The agency erroneously posted at least twice that children died.”

While it could be argued that some of those errors can be written up as a simple mistake during a chaotic and unprecedented time, many feel the graph crossed a line. Some are even skeptical that it was an accident.

“I have a hard time understanding how this happens without it being deliberate,” said State Rep. Jasmine Clark, who has a doctorate in microbiology and molecular genetics. “Literally nowhere ever in any type of statistics would that be acceptable.”

As a result, some people are worried that the data is “being portrayed in a way that favors Kemp’s early easing of restrictions,” according to the AJC.

Georgia was one of the first states to implement a sweeping reopening plan that massively scaled back restrictions. Even President Donald Trump, who has been a vocal supporter of reopening, slammed Kemp for the move.

The decision was controversial, and now, Georgia is being closely watched for what happens next. In other words, there’s a big incentive to make the numbers look good.

As the AJC points out, there are other instances where the DPA has portrayed and represented data in questionable manners—  especially when it comes to graphics.

For example, they have a map of the state that colors counties in shades of blue or red based on rates of infection. Recently, the health department changed the metrics so that the infection rate in a given county needs to be higher than it was before to be colored red.

“Based on the (key) they were using a couple weeks ago, a good third to a half of our state would show up as red right now,” said Dr. Harry Heiman, a clinical associate professor at the Georgia State University School of Public Health. “Because they keep moving the goalposts, if you will, it doesn’t look that way.”

Broader Issues With Methodology

The AJC also reported that another graph on the agency’s website “has led readers to think that cases were dropping dramatically, even though lower case numbers were the result of a lag in data collection.”

The lag in data is especially relevant because it speaks to a broader issue with the very core of the methodology the agency uses reports its data.

At first, Georgia recorded and reported coronavirus cases based on the testing date. Then, in late April, right when Kemp began to reopen the state, the DPA started reporting based on when people had symptoms.

“But because it can take weeks for case information to come in, the new method always appears to show that cases are declining, even if they are not,” the AJC reported, adding that the data lags caused by how the state records cases “mean that counts for recent dates are often a fraction of what they turn out to be when the data is more complete.”

As a result, experts have said that these daily numbers are actually a representation of what the case count was about two weeks earlier, meaning that the state’s current numbers are likely a reflection of the success the lockdown measures had.

Looking to Georgia

These data issues are highly concerning and potentially very dangerous for both the people of Georgia and the rest of the U.S.

Georgians use that data to make key decisions, and lawmakers use it to make decisions that impact millions of people in the state, but it also goes beyond that.

“Wrong information about Georgia’s battle against COVID-19 is already shaping the way the public sees the state,” the AJC wrote.

Because of that information, many have been praising Kemp’s actions and using the state as an example and evidence for reopening.

For example, in a May 8 article, the Wall Street Journal dubbed Kemp’s plan the “Georgia Model,” and used it as evidence that lockdowns are unnecessarily harming the economy. 

Other States With Data Problems

Georgia, however, is not the only state with data reporting problems.

Texas, which has arguably the broadest plan for reopening, has also shifted its testing metrics recently in a way that has problematized reporting.

“The Texas Department of State Health Service now includes antibody tests — which can detect whether a person previously recovered from COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus — in its daily testing totals,” the Texas Tribune reported last week.

But as the Tribune notes, that practice makes it impossible to tell how many tests show active infections versus previous infections. That is not the only problem with combining the data from antibody tests and traditional nasal-swab tests.

It also artificially inflates both the number of tests the state says it has done and falsely improves its positivity-rate, which compares the number of people who have tested positive to the total number of people tested.

Experts have said that merging these two very different data sets basically makes a positivity-rate data unusable.

That is quite significant because increased testing and decreasing positivity rates are two of the main factors that states have used as evidence to justify reopening. Like Virginia, which until last week used both traditional and antibody tests in its case count, but stopped after receiving backlash.

The misrepresentation of data also goes beyond testing. According to reports, when it first began easing restrictions, Florida tried to suppress county coroners from releasing coronavirus death counts.

See what others are saying: (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution) (Business Insider) (Vox)

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Nearly 9 Million Are Without Water in Texas, Some Face Electric Bills up To $17,000

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  • More than 8.8 million people in Texas remained under boil water notices Monday, and over 120,000 had no water service at all. 
  • Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said Sunday that the state has distributed around 3.5 million bottles of water, though many of the lines to receive that water were plagued with hours-long waits.
  • Meanwhile, power outages in the state have fallen below 20,000, but many Texans are also beginning to receive astronomical electric bills of as much as $17,000.
  • Both Abbott and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner (D) said those prices are not the fault of customers. While some form of forgiveness is likely, no immediate plan has been outlined yet. 

Millions Without Water

As of Monday morning, nearly 8.8 million people in Texas are still under boil water notices following last week’s snowstorm. That’s about one out of every three Texans.

Despite being a giant chunk of the state’s population, that figure is actually an improvement from 10 million people on Sunday. 

Another 120,000 Texans are still without water service at all.

Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said Sunday almost 3.5 million bottles of water have been distributed across Texas by helicopter, airplane, and truck.

The need for water has been extremely visible. An Austin City Council member shared a video on Twitter Sunday showing a massive line of vehicles waiting for clean water. Some waited for more than an hour before the distribution event began. At another site, she said cars began lining up more than five hours before the event. 

Abbott said the state is bringing in more plumbers to increase repair efforts for damaged water systems. Additionally, Abbott said homeowners without insurance could qualify for emergency reimbursement from FEMA.

Meanwhile, one large-scale effort from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY.) has now raised more than $5 million since first being launched on Thursday. That money will go to several organizations, including the Houston Food Bank, Family Eldercare, Feeding Texas, and the Bridge Homeless Recovery Center.

Texas Electric Bills Soar as High as $17K

All but just under 20,000 Texas homes and businesses have now had their power restored as of Monday morning.

That’s a stark contrast from the more than 4 million that were out of power at one point last week. 

While that’s largely good news, many Texans are now beginning to receive sky-high electric bills. That’s especially evident for those whose power stayed on during the storm. In fact, some people have now told multiple media outlets they’re facing bills as high as $17,000.

One 63-year-old Army vet, who was charged $16,752, told The New York Times that his bill was about 70 times higher than normal.

“My savings is gone,” he said. “There’s nothing I can do about it, but it’s broken me.”

As far as why his and others’ eclectic bills are so high, many people in Texas have plans that are directly tied to the wholesale price of electricity. Usually, that helps keep their costs low, but as demand for power surged during last week’s snowstorm, those prices hit astronomical highs. 

In a statement on Saturday, Abbott said Texas lawmakers “have a responsibility to protect Texans from spikes in their energy bills that are a result of the severe winter weather and power outages,” 

He added that the state Legislature is working “on solutions to help Texas families and ensure they do not get stuck with skyrocketing energy bills.”

In a similar tone, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner (D) said in an interview with CBS on Sunday, “It’s not the consumers who should assume [these] costs. They are not at fault for what happened this week.”

That said, Turner also laid blame at the feet of the Legislature, calling the current crisis “foreseeable” on the part of lawmakers because a similar snowstorm and outages struck Texas in 2011.

Turner added that, at the time, he was part of the Texas legislature and had filed a bill that would have required the agency overseeing Texas’ grid to “ensure that there was an adequate reserve to prevent blackouts.”

“The leadership in Austin did not give it a hearing,” he said. 

While no aid has been fully guaranteed yet, Texas has prevented electric companies from being able to shut off power for people who don’t pay their bills on time. 

See what others are saying: (NBC News) (The New York Times) (CNN)

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Texans Still Face Broken Pipes, Flooding, and Carbon Monoxide Poisoning as Million Regain Power

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  • The number of Texans without power fell from 3.3 million on Wednesday to below 500,000 by Thursday.
  • Still, millions are currently under a boil advisory, pipes have burst as they begin to thaw, and some individuals have died or been hospitalized because of carbon monoxide poisoning. 
  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency said Wednesday that it has sent generators, water, and blankets to Texas, adding that it’s working to send additional diesel for generators.
  • Gov. Greg Abbott and President Joe Biden have also reportedly discussed the possibility of extra funding for people’s electricity bills, as well as for burst pipes.

Power May Be Back but Problems Persist

Power outages in Texas Thursday morning fell to under 500,000 — down from 3.3 million Wednesday morning. 

According to the state’s main grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the remaining outages are largely weather-related and not connected to problems related to forced outages. 

While that return of power to millions is significant, Texans are still facing a host of other problems.

For example, there have been numerous reports of carbon monoxide poisoning as people still without power try to keep warm in their cars or through other means. An adult and a child were found dead Tuesday after running their car inside of a garage, prompting Houston police to issue a statement warning that “cars, grills and generators should not be used in or near a building.”

Six children and four adults were rushed to the hospital Wednesday night for carbon monoxide poisoning after setting up grills inside their homes. 

Even for those now with power, water has become a major issue. On Wednesday, 7 million Texans were placed on a boil advisory and about 263,000 were without functioning water providers. 

One reporter tweeted out a video of people lining up at a park to fill up buckets of water.

“This is not a third world country,” she said. “This is Houston, Texas.”

The Food and Drug Administration and the National Weather Service have even cited melting and boiling snow as an emergency option if people can’t find water elsewhere, an option many have already turned to. 

For some, all these problems only seemed to compound in the form of burst pipes. One viral video shows water gushing out of a third-story apartment. Others posted images of their broken pipes and the damage they have caused. 

As a result, a number of local media outlets have begun to outline steps people can take once their pipes start to thaw or if they break. 

Amid Problems, Aid is Being Distributed

Alongside the overwhelming amount of problems, there has also been a large aid response.

A FEMA spokesperson said Wednesday that the agency has sent 60 “very large” generators to help keep hospitals and other critical infrastructure open. 

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki added that FEMA is preparing to move diesel into Texas to keep that backup power going.

So far, FEMA said it has sent “millions of liters of water” and “tens of thousands” of blankets.

Governor Greg Abbott and President Joe Biden have also reportedly discussed the possibility of extra funding for people’s electricity bills, as well as for burst pipes. That’s because as the storm first hit, electrical demand surged. Since many Texans have plans connected to the wholesale price of electricity, they’re potentially set to be hit with sky-high bills.

Among other issues plaguing Texans is food spoilage; however, that can potentially be reimbursed through renters’ and homeowners’ insurance.

According to an official from the Insurance Council of Texas, “Food coverage is often related to personal property.”

Notably, there are some stipulations depending on individual circumstances and policy. To learn more about how insurance providers accept food spoilage claims, click here.

See what others are saying: (KTRK) (The New York Times) (Houston Chronicle)

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Texas Mayor Tells “Lazy” Residents “No One Owes You” Anything Amid Power Outages

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  • When residents in Colorado City, Texas turned to a local Facebook group to ask if the city or county had emergency shelter plans in place to keep people warm amid power outages, Mayor Tim Boyd shared a Facebook message that sparked outrage.
  • “Sink or swim it’s your choice! The City and County, along with power providers or any other service owes you NOTHING! I’m sick and tired of people looking for a damn handout!” he wrote before suggesting that those struggling are “lazy.”
  • “Only the strong will survive and the weak will parish,” he added. “Get off your ass and take care of your own family!”
  • Hours later, Boyd said he was speaking as a citizen since he had already turned in his resignation and had not signed up to run for mayor again ahead of the deadline a few days ago. It’s unclear when he actually resigned and he is still listed as mayor on the city’s website.

Mayor Under Fire

The mayor of Colorado City, Texas is facing intense backlash for comments he made on Facebook Tuesday claiming the local government has no responsibility to assist residents struggling amid historic winter temperatures.

The remarks came after community members turned to a local Facebook page asking if the city or county had emergency shelters in place to keep people warm amid widespread power outages.

In response, Mayor Tim Boyd wrote, “No one owes you [or] your family anything; nor is it the local government’s government’s responsibility to support you during trying times like this!”

“Sink or swim it’s your choice!” He continued. “The City and County, along with power providers or any other service owes you NOTHING! I’m sick and tired of people looking for a damn handout!”

Boyd argued that residents should come up with their own plans to keep their families safe. Those that are sitting at home in the cold waiting for assistance, he said, are “lazy” as a direct result of their raising.

“Only the strong will survive and the weak will parish,” he continued, likely meaning perish in his statement.

He blamed the calls for basic services like heat and electricity a product of a “socialist government where they feed people to believe that the FEW will work and others will become dependent for handouts.”

He closed by telling locals to “quit crying,” adding, “Get off your ass and take care of your own family!”

Source: KTXS

Mayor Doubles Down, Says He Already Resigned

That now-deleted post drew immediate backlash as Texans continue to slam the government for not delivering adequate support amid the storm.

The outrage eventually prompted Boyd to write a follow-up post, which he also later deleted.

In it, he claimed that his comments “were taken out of context” and did not apply to the elderly; however, he continued to double down.

“I was only making the statement that those folks that are too lazy to get up and fend for themselves but are capable should not be dealt a handout. I apologize for the wording and some of the phrases that were used!”

Boyd said he already turned in his resignation and had not signed up to run for mayor again ahead of the deadline a few days ago. He also said he wished he would’ve kept his words to himself or been more descriptive, and he added that all the anger and harassment since his post has caused his wife to lose her job.

Source: KTXS

Ultimately, he said he was speaking as a citizen since he is no longer mayor and called for the harassment of his family to stop.

According to The Washington Post, it isn’t immediately clear if he resigned before or after writing his controversial Facebook post. As of early Wednesday morning, the paper noted that he was still listed as mayor on Colorado City’s website, and city council agendas showed that he had served in that role as recently as last week.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (KTXS) (People)

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